Whether you’ve already locked down your holiday plans or just starting to think about them, November is a month when most people have time off. It’s also the ideal time to pick up a book. (Rest assured, reading is a personal escape not even your family members can infiltrate.)
Below are six titles we recommend bookmarking for your first wave of holiday travel.
Little Weirds by Jenny Slate
Actor and comedian Jenny Slate has always managed to balance the absurd with the tender. In her first book, a magical memoir of sorts, she harnesses her signature voice to muse on themes of womanhood, selfhood, marriage, and friendship. She describes a debaucherous weekend at the beach with new friends; she investigates the act of dining out with childlike, alien eyes (“I will eat a killed and burned-up bird and drink liquefied old purple grapes”); she yearns for fulfilling, romantic love and affection with the unbridled desire of a teenager. Slate’s warm words make a cozy holiday season companion, offering laughter-inducing bites of flash fiction alongside longer essays to keep you entertained on long flights—or when you just need a break from the festivities.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Understanding how we’ve arrived at the present moment sometimes requires us to return to the past. In his semi-autobiographical novel, Ben Lerner takes us to Topeka, Kansas, where, in the year 1997, a young debate champ named Adam navigates his final year of high school. We meet Adam’s parents, psychologists Jane and Jonathan, both of whom work at a progressive local psychiatric center in town. There’s also Darren, a disturbed teen (and Jonathan’s patient) who unexpectedly falls in with Adam’s friend group. In alternating chapters, we get to know Adam’s hopes and dreams, his family dynamics, and Darren’s painful role in his story. With complex characters and shifting timelines edging towards the Trump era, Lerner paints a prequel to the crisis of male identity unfolding publicly today, and a portrait of a family working to understand it.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Sometimes, as a reader, as a traveler, you need something off the beaten path. Part-memoir, part-academic exploration, Nelson’s Argonauts is a nontraditional story of love, partnership, motherhood, and queerness, threaded with excerpts from feminist and philosopical texts by Judith Butler, Roland Barthes, and others. The book chronicles Nelson’s relationship with her partner, Harry, through their early courting and first pregnancy together. Alongside their love story, Nelson describes her writing process: ”I have no excuse or solution,” she writes of bouts of creative uncertainty, “save to allow myself the tremlings, then go back in later and slash them out.” Shy of 150 pages, Nelson’s book fills you up with hope and wonder, and leaves you wanting to return to your favorite passages.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
It’s incredible how Woodson so diligently packs in so much drama into her slim novel. It’s the kind of book you could finish within a sitting or two, but, goodness, the multitudes these pages contain. There are several intertwined stories that the reader follows: one is set in 2001 on the day Melody turns 16; she celebrates becoming a woman in her grandparents’ Brooklyn home. The other story goes back in time when Melody’s mother, Iris, had also just turned 16—except she was large and pregnant with Melody at the time, and her baby daddy, Aubrey, was but a poor and underprivileged man. Then, there’s the origin story of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Sammy Po’Boy. Yes, there’s a lot of intergenerational drama (and trauma), but what family isn’t without it? This is a book that, in the end, will fill you with familial gratitude.
How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
If you’re an imbiber of smart internet-y stories, it’s quite possible you’ve read the works of Saeed Jones before. As a former BuzzFeed editor, he’s written personal essays, covered LGBTQIA+ issues, and (of course) created content that went viral. As it turns out, his memoir is a perfect amalgamation of what he was best known for at BuzzFeed: It’s got stunning passages, gut-wrenching honesty, and storytelling chops with mass appeal. Jones tells the story of his life, growing up as a gay black Buddhist man in the South (and his subsequent adult life, all over), with an open heart. The writing is so tender and raw that it can make you react with feverish shakes, the kind that makes you want to sob or makes your insides uneasy at the cruelty of the world. It’s all worth the emotional journey.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
This book has a monstrous thickness and weight to it, but don’t let that deter you—it’s something to be both savored and devoured. This inventive comic-like memoir unfolds through a series of revealing conversations, as remembered by Jacob, who unpacks what’s it’s been like as a brown woman in NYC, especially in the post-9/11 era. She’s forced to further examine her identity when her interracial, half-Indian son grows up, and begins asking the tough questions about race she’s unsure she has the correct answers for. The format of this book is truly addicting—it’s hard to tune out of other people’s intense conversations, after all. At the same time, get yourself in too deep and in a moment’s notice you’ll find your pulse quickening, your eyes welling up with fat tears, and your gut effectively punched.